Beginning with Scripture
Last time we previewed the subject of Scripture’s sufficiency. We looked at the SBTS Abstract of Principles and the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The Abstract says the Old and New Testament “are the only sufficient … rule”. The WCF says that God’s whole counsel is written in the Bible and “concern[s] all things necessary”. At this point both continue to list what the Bible is sufficient for.
In this post I’d like to begin with the Scripture references that the WCF listed after the initial sentance, namely Galatians 1:8-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:15-17. The first one should be sufficient for today [bad pun intended]. Galatians 1:8-9(ESV) reads,
8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
This passage is helpful in several ways. First, it gives us insight into God’s word. Second, it gives us insight into the way the WCF divines understood God’s word.
The bulk of the passage refers to the unique quality and completeness of the gospel. Paul is very forceful here. He is demanding that the Galatians abandon anything contrary to what Paul delivered to them. The Galatians were struggling through new teachings. Impostors had infiltrated the church with evil teachings. They taught that salvation was gained with the aid of the believer, that believers needed to add something to the salvation Christ provided. Paul is visibly angered in his writing. He enforces this by using his apostolic authority to proclaim them “accursed”, or “eternally condemned” (NIV), forever damned to hell. This language gives us strong indication of the degree to which the Holy Spirit is jealous of Jesus’ work (Exodus 34:14). But now, is the gospel here only reflecting Jesus’ work?
How broad is the scope of the term “gospel” in this passage? Surely the scope of “gospel” here could be all of revealed Scripture, the entire Bible. The other extreme would be that only the essence of the Biblical message is crucial, “God saves sinners” (as J.I. Packer summarizes the gospel).
To perhaps get a better handle on this, we need to look back at the context. There are false teachers in Galatia that are teaching the people a gospel contrary to the gospel Paul taught.
Perhaps it would be better to start with the act of these false teachers rather than their message. Whatever the message, they were willingly, openly and confidently teaching the church in a way contrary to God’s revealed word, which He revealed through Paul.
These people, the false teachers, were not merely inquisitive new believers. They were not merely unpracticed interpreters who needed to meet with their church to correct a personal belief they held. These were teachers that seem to have known what Paul taught. Paul reveals that these teachers “want to distort the gospel of Christ”. They “want” to distort the gospel. Their desire is the perversion of the gospel that Paul taught through the revelation of God. That is the first important step, these false teachers were maliciously seeking to pervert God’s revelation.
The second aspect is that Paul esteemed this aspect, “the gospel”, as critical. Paul wrote letters against those who denied Jesus’ deity, Jesus’ sufficiency in wholly securing the salvation of the elect, etc., and against those who did not practice church discipline, submission, love, etc. Rarely does he use such strong language. In trying to weigh these subjects we can appeal to both the current passage and 1 Corinthians 16. In 1 Cor. 16:22a God writes through Paul, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed”. The strong language is again used. The love believers have for the Lord Jesus is essential, the denial of which also brings the same pronouncement. We see then that in order to love Jesus there are at least two basic aspects: 1) knowing who Jesus truly is; 2) actually loving the revelation of Who He is. The second important step would then be to define the gospel as who Jesus is (including His actions, especially His complete work in salvation) and the love of Him.
How do the Westminster divines give insight through their use of this passage in the confession? The insight we receive into the minds and faith of the Westminster divines shows us that they were very good with both their knowledge of Scripture and their interpretation of it. They understood it all as God-given and therefore important. They also treasured the gospel highly and considered it both sufficient and complete.
We can then conclude that the gospel Paul speaks of in Galatians 1:8-9 is God’s full revelation of our salvation in Jesus Christ. As such, Paul teaches that anything contradictory to it is evil. It is interesting to note that only the contradictory is pronounced evil. We are encouraged, indeed commanded, to teach and expound upon Scripture, not only to read it without aid or interpretation. So the gospel of Jesus Christ, who He is and the love of Him, is sufficiently revealed in the gospel as taught by God through Paul, sufficient for salvation.